Issue 22 / Summer 2020
i. It is 6:00am and I am in the woods.
This is not unusual. Often I find myself here, walking a well-worn park trail on the northwest side of DC during that time of morning when the light is both gentle and bright, like a miracle freshly born. It is cool in the mornings and I walk fast, adding color to my cheeks as I trace a path I know well, rocky and winding.
Sometimes I go again in the late afternoon. My body is like a cat’s in that it can spend an entire day itching toward sunlight, and I have been known to lose myself in reverie, thinking through all the ways the light filters through a canopy of leaves. There’s a word for this: dappling. The place where darkness can no longer hold, breaks into pieces. I’ve always wanted to use it in a poem.
On these days—the double hikes—my body often decides for me, knowing where it will go long before my brain catches up. My mind wanders far from my day, from meetings, frustrations, to-dos. My fingers twitch as though they are stroking bark, rough and thick. The area between my heels and toes crave the feel of the earth, dirt perpetually damp and soft. My ears imagine the sharp buzz of mosquitoes, flying fat and lazy from my blood.
I return to the woods weekly, often more, regardless of season though I am partial to spring. I never cared for this particular season as a child—the piercing of each tightly wound bud too sudden, the promise too sticky, sanguine. I didn’t yet understand the pleasure of anticipation, wanting only the lush afternoons, not the wait of before nor the wilt of after. As I have grown, I have become more partial to the violence of blooming.
I am often alone on these walks, so early in the morning, though afternoon trips concede other hikers here and there, alone or with dogs or a bike for company. Sometimes I’ll see couples on an afternoon stroll, runners, a mother with a newborn wrapped tightly against her chest. “Girl,” she might say to her little one, pointing toward me, then “Tree. Leaf,” coupling me to forest forever in the child’s blurred memory.
What draws me towards the woods, this path, and so often? Is it seclusion? Time by myself is not easy to find in a world that is always asking. I am not afraid of being alone and the trees ask little. Perhaps it is more, an assurance that while I can walk this path, the outside world—and those in it—exist somewhere comfortably beside me. So close that if I reach for it, call it by name, it will come back to me.
I may not be afraid of being alone, but there is something moody, uneasy that watches me through the trees each time I stray a bit too far from the path, waits for a pinprick of blood each time I stumble too close to this sharp edge. It is the thought that despite walking these trails over and over until I know them by heart, I may walk into the woods and not walk out.
It is the fear that I will be lost.
ii. I have been thinking lately of the Greek myth of the love and loss of Orpheus and Eurydice. It is a story of deep love and patience, yes. But it, too, is a story of boundaries blurred, fear. A fear that the ones who have held your hand for so long, leading you back toward the light, will let go.
A fear of losing the trail.
Let’s go back to that brief week in history class when we learned Greek Myths; of gods larger than men, honey brighter than gold, betrayal sharp and pungent.
It is spring and everyone is in love. Apollo has given his son Orpheus a lyre, an instrument he plays with skill, seduction. No one can quite explain why but the air smells bright. Orpheus sets his sights on a woman with a grace and beauty unmatched by any he’s seen before. Her name is Eurydice and soon, they marry. We assume—or rather, we hope with an urgency unique to youth—they are happy.
But fate does not smile upon the lovers. There are variations to the how, the why, and while I’m not sure which version you were taught so many years ago, the story goes something like this: the woods were dark, the path was lost. At some point, alone in the woods, Eurydice dies, surrendering to darkness, drawn down into the underworld. It is a feeling I understand well—how lovely, how quiet, how peaceful to just give in. To go for a walk and never come back.
Orpheus, of course, breaks. He plucks a mournful tune on his lyre. And then another. And soon his sad song is all anyone can hear, and it is unbearable. It is spring after all, a time to forget the death and decay of so many long months, to celebrate. It is not a time to mourn. It is not a time to cry. It is not a time to play a song that causes grown men to weep, mothers to abandon their babies to think wistfully on what could have been. And so, perhaps due to pleas from those above, perhaps to the perseverance of a wife who wears the stain of pomegranate seed beside her heart, or perhaps even due to the plain face of empathy, Hades relents. He allows Orpheus the chance to bring his beloved back to life.
The rules are simple: Orpheus may lead Eurydice back up to earth, and he can hold her soft hand the whole way, but he cannot turn around. He must trust the deal Hades has laid before him, stay patient, believe with all of his human heart that it is his wife behind him.
So much of the teaching of this myth, the analysis, focuses on Orpheus who, I’m sorry to remind you, fails. Orpheus does not trust the god, the path, nor the woman behind him and turns around, damning his love underground again. When we study the story, we think hard on the man who could not trust, on his deep love of this beguiling beauty, his grief, loss, his mournful song.
But I watch Eurydice, the impression of her soles left in damp earth on the climb up. Were they deep? Heavy? Did she bend down to trace them on the journey back down?
iii. I first began walking in my early teens. Growing up in a small town in upstate New York, quiet wooded areas were not hard to find. When you are young, there is not much that is yours alone, but I had these moments, away from all the petty heartbreak of teendom. Even in the darkest of winter days, I loved spending time outside, watching closely the way the trees softly blanketed each branch—crystalline ice licking even the smallest, thinnest sprigs.
This continued into adulthood, a constant across many moves, new apartments, cities, roommates, transitions. There is a homespun consistency to the sound of the woods, the calls of the birds, sometimes hollow, sometimes whistling, the crack of twigs under my feet, the rustle of small animals aware of my weight and shadow. Despite the changing of seasons, the different paths, I have found comfort across each mile tread. I’ve taken to the woods in the flush of new love, through my brother’s first bender, each subsequent relapse. I’ve allowed my shoulders to relax under a canopy of leaf and bright sunspots when angry at yet another inept boss, when contemplating an upcoming opportunity and the changes it would merit.
I was nursing a sour heart when I first moved to DC, grieving a dream mislaid, the details of which are as interesting as they are unique—a breakup, a cross-country move, a new job. It was mid-March when I walked into this new life and while I could still feel the ice of winter in the wind, the world around me was beginning to thaw. This transition had been more difficult than anticipated and I was haunted by feathered shadows of loneliness, waiting eagerly for each evening and weekend hour when I could take to the woods.
As winter melted firmly into spring, I began walking farther, longer. Often I didn’t even look up the specifics of a trail. I would just wander until my legs pulsed with exhaustion. What I was seeking was difficult to name and so instead, I journeyed deeper each trail, my loneliness a small rock, rolling around the bottom of my shoe. I began to crave these moments alone. There was much that was isolating in my new life, but here in the woods with winking sprouts and long tailed ferns as company, I felt far from alone.
One morning, I got lost. Meandering past well known paths, I was daydreaming, seeing anxieties, memories, instead of the trees, lichen, moss-covered markers before me. Suddenly, I was somewhere new, off-track and unknown, a steep incline tangled with gnarled roots and loose stones. I tried to circle back but that only made things worse. The earth was marked with branches fallen from a recent storm. I had no idea where I was and, foolishly, had left my phone in my small studio apartment.
Panicked, I began to seek totems of a way back, evidence human or otherwise. I enjoyed playing the recluse but in truth, there was no one here to find me, to even notice I was gone. I had withdrawn from the world, pushed too hard, retreated deeper and deeper and finally, I had gone too far.
Until—a small yellow stripe on a tree, a marker that, while unfamiliar, signaled I was at least somewhere known to others. I started walking. The trail was less tread than those I was used to, but I began to notice signs of life: a makeshift staircase built from fallen wood and large rocks, grooves in boulders that showed where others had pulled themselves up, over. Soon, too, I began to hear a rush of water, smell the sharp copper of the creek, bloated with rainwater. I was not the first to explore this place and I shared a moment of gratitude with the others before me who had carved a small path forward. Following their lead, sweat dotting my forehead, I climbed, following trampled leaves and broken twigs, blemishes made by human feet, back toward a place I knew.
I wonder if Eurydice’s path looked similar. If she, too, retreated too far but then—just as despair threatened—a soft glimmer of sunlight through the trees. I wonder if she left her palms on each stone for a second too long, feeling their earthy cool, if that gave her muscles the power to climb. I wonder if she stumbled on pebbled land, wished for a sip of water, a small break. I wonder if she allowed a small moment of hope, as the path revealed itself to her.
I continued to climb for what was, in truth, only an hour, though it felt much longer. The path was not an easy one, nor the one I had set out on just earlier that afternoon. My calves ached from each incline, the arches of my feet beginning to sore from miles unprepared to tread. But I continued one clumsy step over muddy trail at a time until I saw a clearing ahead, an entrance to the woods from a neighborhood not far from my own.
As I traded the soft earth for concrete, sounds of cars and children in yards overtaking the quieter music of the forest, I felt three things.
The first was relief—perhaps I was not as lost as I had supposed. The second was resilience—perhaps I could find a way back on my own. But the third was something else entirely. Perhaps what drew me to the woods and what led me out wasn’t as easy as being lost and then found.
Glancing back toward the trees, I watched the sunlight filtering through the rich awning of leaves throwing spots of shadow on the forest floor, felt the humid seduction of each spellbound moment spent in their company.
iv. What was Eurydice thinking as her beloved led her toward the light? Were her feet familiar with this dance? Did she know with a calm empathy that he would turn around, damn her forever with a moment of uncertainty? Does it matter? Whether with lover or alone, it is exhausting to move our bodies this way, tracing a path over and over, right foot then left. It is tiresome to want two things slippery with contradiction.
And what about before? Before the crying song, the pleading, the journey upward? So often I, too, have longed for surrender. How wonderful it would be to just lay down, forget the world around me, give in to the quiet release calling from below. To be lost in the fullest sense.
Could Eurydice see the grooves of the trail ahead? Did she want to? To which world did she belong?
Eurydice, did you dream? Dream of the light, the bright drops of dew in the morning sun, a man who loved you despite a gravity towards the deep wood, someone who would take your hand, lead you back to where you needed to go. Did you trust your own legs to take you home? Know this path? Understand the possibilities ahead of you, the straying, the movement, the taste of this periphery?
v. There are many trails, each ripe with a story, its own tender soil. Sometimes, we lose ourselves in one slip of darkness, one unworn road. And though hope threatens on the horizon, though we have a lover, or friend, or parent, or our own naked being who will grip our hand tight and climb, we are still lost, seeking found.
But there is a place where the light gets in, where it bleeds through the leaves, allowing small spots of warmth on your skin. There is the hope that we will not be too taken by the feeling of bark on our fingers, that we will remember the path home.
How often have I withdrawn from a world too big, too bright, to wander deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper? How close have I come to the periphery of here and not, found and lost?
Often I have the sensation of waking up, deep in the middle of the woods. Miles of hills, winding trails, and suddenly, wonder—the laced shadow of a cobweb on a tree, so precise I hold my breath, a tiny green caterpillar making its way across a wide and sturdy leaf, a whisper of November frost so fine I pray the world be always this quiet. Awake now, I stand in awe of the calm, brute, defied apology of the world around me.
When I look up, I see the sun coming in warm between the trees. When I look down, I understand the temptation of darkness. And sometimes I stand silently in between, trying my best to clean the dirt from underneath my fingernails.
Kristen Zory King is a writer and artist facilitator based in Washington, DC. Recent work can be found in Electric Lit, Past-Ten, District Lit, mac(ro)mic, and SWWIM, among others. Learn more or be in touch at www.KristenZoryKing.com.